The PPCC once mentioned that happy couples don't exist in th early parts of Hindi films. We'd go so far as to extend this generalization to most films, books, or oral epics; it's just not good narrative form to have a film about romance have the marriage take place within the first thirty minutes. In such a scenario, the only aesthetically logical conclusion is that one of the lovers must perforce die sometime later (but not too long later) in the film so that we can then talk about love as a grieving thing, not love as a troublesome courtship ritual. See, for example, Silsila or Kasme Vaade or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
In Abhinetri, Anjana (Hema Malini) and Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) meet and fall in love and get married within the first hour. They cuddle and proclaim how much they love each other. At one point, Anjana says Shekhar is so wonderful that she could gladly die in his arms. By this point, the PPCC was convinced: OK, Anjana's going to die. Probably in Shekhar's arms. It makes perfect narrative sense. She even foreshadowed it herself!
"Oh, my head! Oh, Shekhar! I'd be happy to just DIE. In YOUR ARMS."
So it was with increasing anxiety that the PPCC watched Anjana survive each scene. And then we started to doubt, "Wait... how can they kill off Hema's character anyway? Famous Shashi may be, but he cannot bear alone the weight of a double-billed Shashi-Hema film with no Hema! And the DVD cover makes no mention of double roles." Time ticked away, and eventually the threshold was passed, when it became too late in the story to have any deaths, unless of course Shekhar and Anjana blew up together à la Amar and Meghna (which would have just been weird in a romantic comedy).
Then we understood: "Oh, wait, this is a domestic rom com. Oooh." Now it all fell into place. Shashi was basically reprising Raja, except more educated and yet similarly unenlightened, and Hema was Mary Tyler Moore. The film, which is light and zingy like a key lime pie, explores these two quirky characters as they get married and then run into, well, basically Shekhar's total stupidity. Or, you could say, cultural constraints on married women in the rapidly modernizing bourgeoise of 1960s India.
Awww, Hema was so cute.
Proper summary: Anjana (Hema Malini) is a kick-ass dancer, loved and adored by legions of cultural classicists and, well, yes, some horny philistines too. But she loves what she does. She is empowered and independent. One day she accidentally locks herself out of her home just as a handsome stranger, Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor), has also ran onto the porch to protect himself from the rain. Anjana, being assertive, asks Shekhar if he can open the jammed door, and Shekhar obliges, twisting his ankle in the process. They bicker with the familiarity of two people who are made for each other. Hence, when Shekhar leaves his jacket at her place, it's a perfect excuse for Anjana (!) to initiate the courtship. Take that, patriarchal society.
Something distracting you from your work, son? Need to go to the bathroom?
Shekhar, interestingly, is a chemist working in a fertilizer factory, and there are a number of bizarre and funny scenes when he and his boss discuss the state of apples and shake neon-colored test tubes and make jokes about washing your hands. Shekhar is a scientist of the Doctor Doolittle breed: lovably quirky, absent-minded and socially inept. Yet he is Shashi, and so Anjana falls for him and, well, she is Hema, and so Shekhar falls for her. When Shekhar introduces her to his mom (Nirupa Roy... of course), and Anjana, an orphan, takes to the mom like jelly to peanut butter, it's obvious that wedding bells are ringing (uh, between Shekhar and Anjana).
Marriage bells already ringing! This can only lead to DOOM.
Yet more cuddles at the kitchen table during Happy Domesticity. Note with alarm that Hema's character is not dead.
Ever-required Mom's Approval.
So Shekhar and Anjana get married and start living happily ever after. As mentioned above, neither die but instead putter about in the kitchen and talk about domestic things. What?! Clearly something is up. The drama comes when Anjana, who had given up dancing after marriage, decides she wants to start dancing again. Shekhar reveals himself to be a close-minded traditionalist, and he pouts and whines and becomes generally unpleasant, eventually driving Anjana to go live with her friend. There is much snapping at and avoidance during this separation, until Mom comes to visit Shekhar and, again because Shekhar and his Mom are apparently fervent traditionalists, Shekhar begs Anjana to come back home and pretend to be his wife. Mom will never accept a marital squabble, let alone separation! Anjana reluctantly agrees.
And indeed, just as they say behavioral changes lead to changes in thinking, Anjana and Shekhar begin to fall in love again as they pretend to be a happily married couple. What? It's Shashi and Hema! They're so cute, who could resist? And how could they resist each other? Impossible! When Mom makes her move to leave, the spouses, too proud to admit it to each other, both privately beg her to stay so that they can continue with the charade. Mom reveals this to each of them, and everyone is reunited again in a big, happy family.
I just want to dance!
In one respect, this is just as offensive and misogynistic as Jab Jab Phool Khile. Made during the same time, once again we are told that a "career woman" has no chance of being employed, empowered and happily married. And, once again, the woman chooses marriage over herself, hence implying that that's the 'natural' or at least 'desirable' conclusion. That said, Abhinetri is somewhat more forgiving to us girl folk. Jab Jab Phool Khile properly demonized Rita's attempts at modernization; they were, in the extreme, equated with alcoholism and prostitution, or, at the very least, an unnatural attempt to deny your Hindustani dil and play the Westerner. At least in Abhinetri, Anjana's independence takes the form of the objectifying (but nonetheless much more valid than just boozing and dancing with men) creation of art via classical dance. Also, thankfully, Anjana is allowed space to give her side of the story, and it seems that the film largely sympathizes with her plight: Shekhar's mom lends a supportive voice by mourning the loss of her own independence after marriage (she had been a singer). Hence both women say on several occasions that it was quite painful to give up something you love in order to conform to traditional gender roles. In fact, Shekhar's oppressive inflexibility seems partly a quirk, just another sign of how naïve and sheltered his workaholism has kept him.
The happy ending comes partly to fulfill the audience's wishes, but it is no resolution. Effectively, Shekhar and Anjana have just moved back in with each other; there is no mention of whether Anjana will or will not take up dancing again. It seems only that Shekhar and Anjana's love is strong enough to keep them together, even if they may bicker. Whether Anjana ends up conceding the fight and becoming 'domesticating' is left unsaid, though we at the PPCC think she was a strong enough character that she would have just accepted the quarrels in exchange for her right to a career. And Shekhar was as pliable as putty, so surely he would have eventually given in.
Peformance-wise, Shashi and Hema are as charismatic and cute as they always are. They have wonderful chemistry, and it was also refreshing to see Shashi in a more submissive position within a relationship. Usually he plays the playboy (see, for example, Trishul, Kabhi Kabhie, and Kaala Patthar) who, with the cunning skill of Austin Powers, makes you randy, baby, yeah. It was nice, then, to see him play the dorky, inhibited boyfriend who has to be reminded what foreplay is. We don't want this review to turn into the review for Satyam Shivam Sundaram, where everything turned into a sexual metaphor, but we at the PPCC simply must note the song where Anjana teaches Shekhar to sing. And by sing we actually mean "sing" (wink wink nudge nudge).
It's best if you don't think of The Sound of Music while watching this, because that just ruins the metaphor and makes it creepy. Anyway, this was the PPCC's favorite song and worth the price of the DVD alone.
Oddly, and we hate to write this, but Nirupa Roy, always so comforting and maternal, turned into a real pain during Abhinetri. First, she seemed much too young in 1970 to be playing Shashi or Hema's mother, and the make-up didn't even attempt to age her. Second, she had an air of such ethereal saintliness that we groaned every time she appeared in a scene. Ugh, spare us the sermon!
A Note on the DVD: We have a Super Digital Media DVD of Abhinetri and, for the love of all that is sacred, it has Special Features and these Special Features are so special that they feature an entire selection of Shashi and Hema's solo hit songs from their respective repertoires of awesomeness. The PPCC just died. Just died.